Editing: Reviewing Structure

Why is editing for structure important? A clear and logical structure is important in a shorter essay, but becomes even more crucial in a longer document such as a dissertation where the reader might become lost and literally ‘lose the plot’. Structure needs to be created first in your mind, through planning, of course, but it also needs to be articulated to the reader in the text. I find there’s three ways that structure can go wrong:

  • if you didn’t actually have one in the first place
  • or if you had one but didn’t follow it
  • or if you have excellent structure in your head, but somehow your writing just doesn’t give off the right signals and signposts, so the reader finds it hard to figure out where it’s going!

These three possibilities are things I check for when editing for structure.

How can I tell if my text is well structured? To tell if your text is well structured, it might help to return to your original planned structure, before all the writing got in the way and obscured it! If you’re the kind of writer who likes to plan beforehand, dig out your original notes on what you understood your aim or research question to be, what conclusion you felt you were aiming for, what content you intended to include and in what order. Of course, your thinking may well have evolved as you researched and wrote, so it’s a good idea to review your initial plan so that it now accurately reflects any new directions, material or ideas. If you’re not a planner and like to write first to develop your ideas and see what results, you might create a retrospective plan out of your material to help to help bring out the shape clearly in your own mind.

Where do I signal my structure to the reader? Introductions and conclusions play a key role in signposting structure to your reader, as well as clarifying it for yourself. I start by comparing the introduction and conclusion. The introduction should raise or interpret a research question or problem, and the conclusion should offer the overall answer or solution that’s reached. Do they? And does the question in the introduction match the answer given in the conclusion or have you drifted off onto a different question without realising? Finally, your introduction is a place to indicate to your reader how you’ve broken down the main body – how many sections, or chapters, and how they relate to each other.

How do I tell if the main body flows properly? The advice that structure should ‘flow’ is fine, but what does it mean and how do you tell? I look at the building blocks of the text – the paragraphs. It might be helpful to print out your document, which will give you a better overview of the sections and how they relate to each other. What I do initially is to scan the document – don’t read it – to get a sense for how long the paragraphs are. If there are pages with no paragraph breaks or only one, the paragraphs may be too long and unfocussed or mix several points in together; if there are more than three paragraph breaks per page, you may be splitting up single points or not developing them enough. You’ll need to look at this more closely when you re-read your paragraphs. Different subjects have different tendencies when it comes to paragraph length – Arts and Humanities tend to tolerate longer paragraphs than, say, Physical Sciences, but have a look at paragraph lengths in a typical book or journal article in your subject as a guide.

How do I signal this flow to the reader? The next thing I look at is how the paragraphs link. You may have heard the advice: One Point Per Paragraph. That Point very often is the first line of the paragraph. It’s like a mini-introduction. I check that the rest of the paragraph matches the first line – is the rest of the paragraph essentially unpacking that point more, or does it wander off to other points? The other thing I find helpful is to look just at the first line of each paragraph in turn, as if the text was made up only of these. Does it still sort of make sense and logical progression or does it seem completely random and disjointed? You might need to look at those signpost words again, to show the reader the connection between your paragraph points.

Another strategy I find helpful is to imagine that you’re having a dialogue with your reader. They are asking you questions, and your chapters, sections and paragraphs are the answers to those questions. So for each of your paragraphs, what is the question that the paragraph is an answer to? Do the questions make a natural sense in that order? And are you actually answering them? Look again at how this blog post uses questions at the start of each paragraph – hopefully it sounds like a natural conversation, the questions in your voice and the answers in mine – and if you took those questions away, it would still feel clear and logical.

Posted by Helen

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